LOS ANGELES: The Milwaukee Bucks started strong and clung on late to beat the Brooklyn Nets 86-83 on Thursday and claw their way back into their NBA Eastern Conference second-round playoff series.
Khris Middleton scored 35 points and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 33 as the Bucks — routed in two games in Brooklyn — trimmed the deficit in the best-of-seven series to 2-1.
Kevin Durant led the Nets with 30 points and 11 rebounds, but his three-point attempt to force overtime bounced off the rim and the Bucks avoided falling into an 0-3 hole.
“It looked good, but thank god it didn’t go in,” Antetokounmpo said of Durant’s final attempt.
The Bucks were coming off a humiliating 39-point loss to the Nets in game two in Brooklyn, and in the first game of the series in Milwaukee they came out playing as if their lives depended on the outcome.
Antetokounmpo and Middleton scored 15 points apiece in the first quarter as the Bucks seized a 30-11 lead.
The Nets turned the tables in the second period, opening the quarter on a 15-2 scoring run.
They out-scored the Bucks 31-15 in the second — but they didn’t get their first lead of the game until the third quarter, when Bruce Brown’s jump shot put them up 65-64 with just over a minute remaining in the period.
It was nip and tuck the rest of the way, the Bucks taking a two-point lead into a fourth quarter that saw four lead changes, with neither team leading by more than four points.
It was tied at 80-80 with 1:30 remaining. Durant drained a three-pointer to put the Nets up with 1:23 left.
Middleton drove for a layup to cut the deficit and Jrue Holiday spun in for a layup to put Milwaukee up by one with 11.4 seconds to play.
“To take the ball and get to the basket and finish with a scramble defense, we needed that,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Holiday’s effort. “We needed that one play from him, and he made it. And it was big.”
Middleton pushed the Bucks’ lead to three with two free throws that capped the scoring.
“At the end of the day we kept our composure,” Antetokounmpo said. “We stayed together ... we kept trusting our habits and we were able to stay in the game and get the win.”
The Bucks will try to level the series when they host game four on Sunday.
“That’s a good old-fashioned playoff game right there,” said Kyrie Irving, who added 22 points for a Nets team who were again without the third piece of their star trio, James Harden, who is nursing a hamstring injury.
“Both teams played incredible defensively,” Durant said. “Both teams played extremely hard, low turnover game. They had eight blocks, we had eight steals, so it was one of them grind out games.
“They just made a couple more points late,” Durant added. “They hit a couple more shots than we did.”
In Western Conference action, Donovan Mitchell scored 37 points and the Utah Jazz held on for a 117-111 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert — fresh off winning his third Defensive Player of the Year award — scored 13 points, pulled down 20 rebounds and blocked three shots as Utah took a 2-0 lead in the series.
Mitchell got off to a hot start, scoring 14 points in the first quarter. Although the Jazz led by just one point after one period, they pushed the lead to 13 in the second quarter and to 21 in the third quarter before the Clippers battled back.
Los Angeles took the lead for the first time on a three-pointer by Reggie Jackson with 6:37 remaining.
But Utah responded with a 15-4 scoring run to regain control.
Jackson led the Clippers in scoring with 29 points. Paul George added 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, meanwhile, was held to 21 points.
“We kept fighting,” Gobert said. “These guys are tough, they’re never going to give up. We know that it’s going to be a battle 48 minutes every night.”